Transit Oriented Development on Elizabeth

A new mixed-use apartment building called the Union on Elizabeth was just approved by the Planning and Zoning board. It will be situated within the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) overlay zone and will include a total of 402 bedrooms. The project is notable for a few reasons. It will be the first 5-story building along W. Elizabeth. It will be transforming a segment of the neighborhood that has remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years. And it will be bringing to W. Elizabeth the type of density that has flooded Plum street in the past few years. It’s also going to provide some well needed connectivity between Plum and Elizabeth Streets.

As Fort Collins expanded after World War II, the community began to grow around Colorado A&M to the south and west. Most of the area to the west of campus had been sprawling agricultural fields. In fact, Plum Street used to be old Bull Farm Road. As the area developed, strip malls and sprawling residential neighborhoods were built, reflecting the growing automobile age in which almost every household owned at least one motor vehicle and buildings didn’t have to be packed so tightly together. However, over the decades as Colorado A&M became Colorado State University and the student population grew, the need for student housing increased and with the rewriting of the West Central Area Plan, it was determined that Plum and Elizabeth were prime locations for intensified development projects. (To read more on the changes that have taken place over time in these neighborhoods, you may be interested in an article I wrote back in 2015 entitled Ozzie and Harriet vs. Studentlandia.)

The Union on Elizabeth will add 402 bedrooms to Fort Collins in an area that previously had none. (This development will be built where there is currently a church and a strip mall.) It will also include 3,875 square feet of commercial space.

Because the building is in the Transit Oriented Development overlay zone, it is required to include 302 parking spaces for cars and 402 parking spaces for bicycles. The developers are employing two “demand mitigation” options that are allowed as part of the TOD overly zone. They will be furnishing transit passes to all residents. And they are providing a “Bicycle & Pedestrian Level of Service” which means they’re offering infrastructure and amenities that create a comfortable environment for bicyclists and pedestrians. Each of these allow the developers to provide 10% less car parking than otherwise required (or 20% less over all), getting them down to a total of 253 parking spaces needed for motor vehicles. However, the developers have proposed 308 spaces for cars and 633 spaces for bicycles, which surpasses all of the requirements. (So I’m a little confused about why they’re making use of mitigation strategies that they don’t need.)

That said, several neighbors weighed in either in person at the Planning & Zoning board meeting or by letter with their concerns that the increased density of this project, and the loss of the church’s parking lot (which customers of area retailers and restaurants have been using as overflow parking), will negatively affect their businesses. Hopefully the influx of at least 402 students directly on their doorstep will help to keep these businesses going without requiring any additional parking, but we will have to wait and see how that plays out. The fact that the church has been allowing their customers to park for free for so long has been, perhaps, an under-appreciated gift up until this point.

One much needed improvement that this project will provide is a direct route from the mass of new student housing along Plum street to the retailers and restaurants along Elizabeth. Although students are creative and have been able to find means of slipping around barriers to reach nearby retail, there is currently no easy way for pedestrians and bicyclists to travel north and south from Plum to Elizabeth without going out to City Park Avenue to the west or S. Shields to the east. But through some creative design and planning, the Union on Elizabeth will provide just that.

If you look closely at the above image, you’ll note a light blue area with the silhouettes of people standing around towards the lower left of the building. That is a essentially a passageway that goes through (and under) the building and heads towards LoKal, which is an apartment building on Plum street. The developers are calling this a Paseo (like Uncommon, on S. College that has an alley that’s called a paseo. The word appears to be trending in developer circles.). The pass-through space will also be park-like with tables and chairs for residents to sit outside and congregate.

Another aspect of this building that’s intriguing is that it contains a 5 1/2 story parking garage… but you’d never know that from looking at it from the outside. The entire right (east) side of this building houses a parking structure at center with apartments wrapped around it on all four sides. You can see this most clearly in the floor plans for the building. Other new apartment complexes in the area do something similar, but none has a parking structure that is completely wrapped as this one is. (At least, not to my knowledge.) 

There were two main concerns that Planning & Zoning board members expressed regarding the project. One was that there should be oversight of the residents. One board member felt that with some apartments containing 4 and 5 bedrooms, that might lead to increased rowdiness or other issues. So one of the conditions put on the project was that it should have two “people in authority” overseeing the property at all times.

The other concern regarded parking. One board member wanted to be sure that the leasing agency didn’t sell more parking permits within the parking structure than the structure actually had. And every resident that didn’t buy a parking permit should be made to sign a document declaring that they have no car in the city that they’re parking elsewhere in the immediate neighborhood (and thereby contributing to the overall parking problem in the area).

In reviewing the agenda documents from the Planning and Zoning board’s December 14th meeting, there are two other items that caught my attention. The first is that the developers said they will be providing all residents with a transit pass. But given that this is student-oriented housing, and most of those students likely attend Colorado State University, then they all already have transit passes that they’ve paid for through their tuition fees. So it’s very unlikely that any of them will take advantage of that amenity. However, the purpose of that “demand mitigation” strategy is not only to get residents using the bus system, but also to support the bus system financially. I’m curious how the City tracks the purchase of transit passes for residents. I’d also like to know how long that requirement remains in place. Will the building managers of Union on Elizabeth need to buy passes in perpetuity, even if the ownership changes hands? I’d like to find out more about how this is expected to work.

My other concern is regarding safety, and I’m a little shocked that no one on the P&Z board even mentioned this. The developers had originally planned to have motorists enter and exit the parking structure from the east side. But due to how close that is to other driveways and the pedestrian crosswalk, the City staff asked them to move the entrance/exit to the west. That works just fine except that now motorists have to drive across the bicycle/pedestrian path in order to reach the parking spaces. If this were a building full of older residents, all of whom are a little more experienced with driving (in general) and driving around pedestrians and bicyclists (more specifically) then perhaps this would be just fine. Everyone would know to slow down and proceed carefully. But students are rarely known for their caution nor for their level of experience with driving. It’s possible that some protective features will need to be added at some point to improve the safety of this crossroads situation.


All images included here were taken either from the Planning and Zoning agenda packet from December 14, 2017.